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Networks Shield Government from Blame for 176 Deaths During Government Motors Ownership

GM bailout could prevent some from suing over faulty ignitions, despite media’s 98 percent blackout of government bailout.

When lives are lost due to a faulty product the media point fingers all the way up to the top of the company. Just not when the government owns the company.

The broadcast networks have aired 42 reports on the GM safety recall of faulty ignitions; malfunctions that resulted in more than 300 deaths. But in the course of their reporting, ABC, CBS and NBC only once said something that could remind viewers that GM was, for a time, Government Motors. More than half of fatalities occurred during the period of federal ownership of GM.

The networks’ refused to criticise the government in GM stories, yet they insisted on blaming Mitt Romney for Bain Capital’s actions throughout his candidacy. It is particularly egregious in the case of GM because many victims cannot pursue legal action against GM due to the terms of its 2009 bankruptcy.

While running 42 stories between the Feb. 13 recall and March 17, the broadcast networks have ignroed the federal government’s bailout of General Motors 98 percent of the time (41 out of 42 stories), completely ignoring the fact that 176 fatalities occurred during the government’s ownership.

According to the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), defective GM cars have killed 303 people since 2003 due to faulty ignitions that unexpectedly turned off car engines. GM learned of problems with the ignition switches in 2001, Reuters reported. In response to these allegations, The New York Times said that GM announced a 778,000 car recall on Feb. 13, later expanding it to 1.4 million vehicles. Further problems, reported by USA Today on March 18, have forced GM to recall an additional 1.5 million cars based on airbag problems.

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Center for Auto Safety broke down the ignition fatalities by years. The government initially bailed out GM in 2009 and sold the remaining stock in December 2013. Between 2009 and 2012, when the CAS tally ended, 176 people died, comprising 58 percent of the total fatalities.

ABC, CBS and NBC heavily covered the GM recall, with 42 stories in 32 days. But only one story mentioned the government bailout, and none explicitly pointed out that the government actually owned GM.

On March 6, CAS executive director Clarence Ditlow told NBC’s “Nightly News” that “[GM] took billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money which could have been spent for doing a recall and yet they didn’t do it.” That was the only story linking the federal government to GM in any way, during the recall stories.

The government bailout, however, is directly relevant to the current GM recall. According to Reuters, some potential plaintiffs will be unable to sue GM, because of the terms of the 2009 bankruptcy. NBC affiliate WRCBtv cited CAS as saying “It is true that new GM did not assume liability for claims arising from incidents or accidents occurring prior to July 2009.”

The networks’ willingness to shield the government from the GM recall contrasts with their insistence on holding Mitt Romney accountable for Bain Capital’s actions after he stopped making decisions for the company.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was under fire for his role in the private equity firm, Bain Capital. Many claimed that Bain Capital was responsible for sending jobs overseas while Romney was the company’s CEO. Romney claimed that he was uninvolved with Bain after 1999, but the media seized on documents indicating that he was still technically CEO.

For example, CBS’ Wyatt Andrews said on July 13, 2012’s “Evening News” that “Romney says he took a leave of absence from Bain Capital in February of 1999 ... However, in the years Romney describes himself as on leave from Bain, here’s how Bain was describing him in reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission: sole shareholder, sole director, chief executive officer, president and even managing director.”

Methodology

The Media Research Center’s Business and Media Institute analyzed broadcast network news stories from Jan. 1- March 19, 2014 for coverage of General Motors or GM, examining them for coverage of the recalls or the threat vehicles posed to consumers.

— Sean Long is Staff Writer at the Media Research Center. Follow Sean Long on Twitter.